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A Letter To Sandy Banks About Bike Lanes

October 9, 2010

This morning (on the eve of CicLAvia, no less!) the LA Times ran a column by Sandy Banks, which was essentially a negative review of a new bike lane on Wilbur Ave in Northridge. Normally, I would simply read a piece like this, become a bit testy for the next few minutes, then forget about it. But knowing Banks’s work, I decided instead to respond with a lengthy email. Since I haven’t been able to cough up new stuff in awhile, here it is for your reading pleasure.

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Dear Ms. Banks,

I am one of your regular readers, and I think your columns do an excellent job of giving a voice to both sides of controversial issues, particularly in your recent series about the LA Times’s study on LAUSD teachers.

Thus I feel the need to write to you about your article this morning. I should let you know up front that I am a frequent cyclist; I cycle not for recreation but as a practical mode of transportation, though I also drive a car. I am a regular contributor to Streetsblog Los Angeles, an online news source about biking and mass transit. All that said, I am sympathetic to the negative feelings one might have at the removal of lanes on one’s favorite street. When lanes exist and are taken away, there is a palpable feeling of loss – and perhaps even wrongdoing – that would not exist had Wilbur Ave been built with bike lanes back in the 1950s. Also, driving in a car has the unique ability to make drivers acutely aware of every stop, delay or traffic jam.

Furthermore, while I am generally a supporter of new bicycle infrastructure, I do have ambivalence about the Wilbur Ave. bike lanes. If nothing else, they could have been implemented better. But the fact that there is currently little bike related infrastructure in the Valley means that people have little incentive to travel by bike, and in general will choose not to bike until they can feel safe on any street. The fact that one single street has been made safe is a step forward for cycling, but it won’t make a dent until the rest of the Valley is a safer place to bike, and in the meantime the existing piecemeal network is left wide open to criticisms such as the ones you raise.

I’m not as concerned with your arguments against the Wilbur Ave lanes specifically (admittedly, not the highlight of LA’s bike planning) but the statement you make midway through the piece: “The city’s bike plan calls for 1,600 miles of lanes and paths 20 years from now. There are 400 now, and the mayor has promised to add 40 miles of lanes each year. Some will come at drivers’ expense. But where, how much and to what end?”

The implication, then, is that every new bike path will be a carbon copy of the Wilbur experience: infrequently used, and a pain to drivers. I can tell you unequivocally that that is not true. I live in Long Beach, a city which is every bit as “car dependent” as the rest of greater LA. However, the city has its own bike program which recently has become very active in developing new bike lanes, bike boulevards and “sharrows”: lanes which cars can still use, but are marked to indicate that bikes also can have use of the lane. And though the program is not free of opposition, it have been successful. Sharrows on 2nd street have doubled the number of bikers, and also had a positive effect on local stores and restaurants. Two weeks ago, new bike lanes opened on a wide open stretch of PCH near Long Beach State. I ride this stretch frequently on my bike and in a car, and the new lanes have improved both the driving and riding experience. The stretch of road used to between two and three lanes, the outermost often used by aggressive drivers passing on the right. Now, the new lane gives more space to bikes and eliminates this problem.

I ride my bike frequently in central LA as well. Bicycle lanes make a huge difference. While biking on Sunset through Echo Park a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Thank God there’s a bike lane here!” If you want to experience the sheer terror of biking in LA without a bike lane, try riding down Wilshire.

Will new lanes impede motorists? In some cases, yes. And to the points you raise, it would be ideal if new lanes could be done in such a way that would generate an instant spike in bike ridership. However, why not look for those areas, like PCH here in Long Beach, where adding a bike lane does little to affect cars and is a major improvement for bikers? And, while it might raise objections from those unfamiliar to cycling, there are some cases where taking away car lanes would actually be a net benefit to neighborhoods. Consider some of the denser commercial and retail districts in Central LA and the Westside. What if everyone who lived within two miles of any given commercial area chose to ride in on a bike? Bicycles have one tenth the square footage of cars, which means a huge amount of extra room for those who still drive in to park. Wouldn’t it be useful to encourage people to bike, instead of making cyclists fear for their lives?

I can’t really expect you to change your mind about the bike paths on Wilbur. But I ask that, when you hear about new bike lanes being installed somewhere in the city, to at least keep an open mind about the effects they might have on traffic and the community. They might in some cases cause drivers a momentary inconvenience, but what about the safety they give bikers? What about the space, gas, and wear on the road saved every time someone chooses to take a bike rather than drive? Isn’t that worth a few extra feet of pavement?

I would also like to invite you to find out more about the cycling community. I enjoyed your talk with Michelle Mowery, but there are also plenty of other bikers around town. My editor at Streetsblog is a knowledgeable and friendly guy, and there are several independent bike organizations throughout the city; the Los Angeles County Bike Coalition is a good place to start. If you’re feeling adventurous, there are organized group rides, which you can find on sites like Midnight Ridazz. Some can be pretty intense, but others are geared towards casual riders and are a lot of fun. And tomorrow, there is a huge bicycle event downtown called Ciclavia which may give you a better feel for bicycling in LA – if you get this message in time. If nothing else, dust off your old bike (or maybe borrow your neighbor’s) and try riding down Wilbur. It may not quite make up for the time it costs you in the car, but at least you’ll see what the streets look like from a bicycle. Who knows? You might even like it.

So finally, as I realize your schedule is in all likelihood quite full and you receive a high volume of emails, I’d like to thank you for reading this far and hearing me out. And while we may have differing views on bike paths in Los Angeles, it is good to have the issue raised by someone as reasonable as yourself.

Best wishes,

Drew Reed

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If you want to send your own message to Sandy, her public address is sandy.banks@latimes.com. Have fun!

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 13, 2010 4:03 pm

    Wonderful letter, Drew.

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